We often hear the Holy Spirit being referred to as the forgotten member of the Holy Trinity. That is certainly true enough. Akin to this, there is also a forgotten holyday in the Byzantine rite: Mid-Pentecost. This holyday is celebrated on the twenty-fifth day after Easter, or exactly one half of the way to Christian Pentecost, the founding of the Church. Mid-Pentecost has a post festive period like many major holydays and at some points it was celebrated with an all-night vigil. You can find traces of that celebration even today in the Sisters of St. Basil’s Pentecostarian, where there are two canons for Matins on this day. Yet, Mid-Pentecost is oddly not reckoned as one of the major holidays in the Byzantine calendar.
Why is this? Mid-Pentecost has traditionally been seen as a day uniting Easter and Pentecost, two of the major feasts of the Church. The service of the day suggests Mid-Pentecost basks in the afterglow of two to the great feasts of the Church and unites them. There is little doubt about that, potentially reducing its theological importance. There is another connection that might put Mid-Pentecost in a whole new light. Not only does Mid-Pentecost connect Easter and Pentecost, it also connects the preceding Sunday (The Sunday of the Paralytic) and the following Sunday (The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman) with the theme of living water, a vastly important biblical, sacramental and theological subject.
The Sunday of the Paralytic celebrates the healing of a sick person by Jesus. The Gospel reading for this Sunday is John 5: 1-15. The Evangelist tells the story of a man who was sick for 38 years and had been reclining at the Pool of Siloam, waiting to be lowered into its healing waters. Why was this Pool thought to have such healing properties? John 5:3a-4 recounts, “…an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and troubled the water: whoever stepped in it first after the troubling of the water was healed of whatever disease he had.” However, these verses are considered to be later additions to the Gospel of John, and do not appear in the best translations of this Gospel. Nevertheless, this insertion begins to lay out an important theme, picked up in verse 7, where the water is referred to as “troubled”. Moving water was considered living water. If the Paralytic was placed into that living water, he would be cured. One can perhaps see why this verse was left out of the more authoritative versions of John, since there is a magic-like quality to the healing. One person and only one person was cured at a time. Moreover, God is making the healing a contest since only the first person stepping into the water is cured.
Looking at the Divine Office for this Sunday, we find the stichera of vespers speaks directly of the angel stirring the pool. Ode One of Matins contains the most important lesson of what has occurred in the Gospel: the angel only healed one person at a time, but Jesus purifies many through Baptism. Recall in the early Church baptism was done preferably by immersion in living (i.e. running) water. Jesus does not need the water from Siloam to heal, but performs this miracle on his own power and authority. This is the first point in a line ending with Jesus declaring he himself is the source of living water needed for salvation.
The Wednesday after the Sunday of the Paralytic is the Feast of Mid-Pentecost. The Gospel for the day is John 7:14-30, where we read: “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’ “. The particular feast Jesus was attending was one called Tabernacles (or Booths). It commemorated the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years. For seven days, water was carried from the Pool of Siloam—the same pool where Jesus cured the Paralytic—in a golden pitcher into the Temple. This ceremony reminded the Israelites of God’s mercy when he provided the Israelites with water in the desert—water that flowed from a rock. Jesus compares himself to the rock producing water for the Israelites. The water from the Pool of Siloam heals, but it is really Jesus who will provide salvation by providing rivers of living water.
The Sunday following Mid-Pentecost is known as the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman. The Gospel for that day is John 4: 5-42. Jesus arrives at a well at Sychar. Many readers will understand a well is where you meet a woman in biblical lore, as fetching water was the job of women. As expected, a woman appears, named Photini in Eastern Christian tradition. Much back and forth occurs, and Jesus eventually proclaims in John 4:13-14, “…Every one who drinks of this water that I give him will never thirst; the water I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The week closes out with a clear proclamation Jesus IS source of the living water.
Recapping the progression of the week’s events, we find on the Sunday of the Paralytic Jesus heals someone in the context of the living water (the Pool of Siloam) but does not reference that in his discourse. On Mid-Pentecost, Jesus says he will give everyone who seeks it Living Water. Finally, on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, Jesus says the Living Water he provides will in fact be the water of eternal life.
There are some discernable trends in this metanarrative:
- The three days weave together a theological, not a chronological story. These events are not chronologically related events in the Gospel of John. The healing of the Paralytic is recounted in John 5 and the events of Mid-Pentecost are recounted in John 7. John 6 recounts the feeding of the masses and the Bread of Life is located in between the two chapters. The final piece of the triad, the story of the Samaritan Woman, is recounted in John 4. Clearly the Gospels picked for each of these days were chosen not to weave together a chronological telling of Jesus’ ministry but to tell a theological story.
- There is a progression of claim about living water. Living water is a context in the healing of the Paralytic, but Jesus does not mention it. On Mid-Pentecost, Jesus proclaims he will give Living Water to the whoever comes to him. On the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, Jesus furthers his claim by saying the living water will provide everlasting life.
- There is progression of claim deemphasizing Temple worship. The events of the Sunday of the Paralytic occur outside the gates of Jerusalem, when Jesus is attending a “feast of the Jews.” It is unclear what feast that is, but many scholars have interpreted this verse to refer to the Jewish feast of Pentecost, one of three times in a year when Jews would go to the Temple for a festival. The feast of Mid-Pentecost is linked to the feast of Tabernacles in John 7:1. We see Jesus in the Temple saying the focus of worship should not be the Temple, but him. By time we arrive at the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, Jesus tells the her it doesn’t matter if you worship with the Samaritans or in the Jerusalem Temple because worship will be through Spirit and Truth, and not through Temple sacrifice.
- The connection of this feast with Baptism and living water explains why an all-night vigil became associated with it. Other days catechumens were baptized (Easter and Lazarus Saturday) also were celebrated with all-night vigils.
When looked at in this perspective, the Gospels of the three days weave three disparate Gospel stories into Christian theology. The metanarrative speaks to the importance of Jesus as the source of Christian salvation, the importance of baptism, and the decreasing importance of the Temple in Christian worship. Perhaps this short article will underline the importance of the Mid-Pentecost holyday and the extent of its observance can be reassessed in the future.